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ON JOHN SEARLE'S 'THE CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIAL REALITY'

In The Construction of Social Reality (1995, Penguin Philosophy), John Searle puzzles over non-physical phenomena - things like money, governments, presidents, marriages, etc. How can we account for such things? To say that they are merely physical seems to rob them, and rob our experience, of something. But what is that something? In (very) brief terms, he proposes that these are social facts, especially institutional facts.

"The question that has puzzled me is: How are institutional facts possible? And what exactly is the structure of such facts?"

He continues,

"Many people, including even a few whose opinion I respect, have argued that all of reality is somehow a human creation."

and explains what he does in his book as:

"So after attempting to answer my original question, How is a socially constructed reality possible? I want also to defend the contrast on which the question rests. I want to defend the idea that there is a reality that is totally independent of us."

His attempt at what this socially constructed reality is rests heavily on language and the lingual aspect, and in fact he seems in danger of trying to reduce everything to this aspect, and talks mainly in terms of 'facts' about things rather than things themselves. He puzzles over different kinds of fact, to try to define or characterise 'institutional facts'.

Much of what Searle says seems to point unmistakeably to Dooyeweerd's ideas around modal aspects, inter-aspectual dependency, qualifying aspects, founding aspects, and the like. I want, here, to show these similarities in Searle's thought to that of Dooyeweerd, and also discuss some differences.

The Aspects

Dooyeweerd's aspects include:

According to Dooyeweerd, these are irreducible to each other. Functioning in one aspects can never be (fully) explained in terms of functioning in others. So, for example, social functioning can never be reduced to physical or biological factors. There is always something above and beyond these that is germane to social functioning.

In many places, and especially in chapter 1, John Searle takes pains to argue for some of this irreducibility. Early on he describes a simple scene, in which he goes into a restaurant for a beer. He says,

"we cannot capture the features of the description I have just given in the language of physics and chemistry. There is no physical-chemical description adequate to define 'restaurant', 'waiter', 'sentence of French', 'money', or even 'chair' and 'table', even though all restaurants, waiters, sentences of French, money, and chairs and tables are physical phemomena. Notice, furthermore, that the scene as described has a huge, invisible ontology: the waiter did not actually own the beer he gave me, but he is employed by the restaurant which owned it."

Throughout the book we find things that suggest that Searle recognises the irreducibility of various aspects. One example is on p.78, where he says "the facts in question persist through time independently of the duration of the urges and inclinations of the participants in the institution." Though his main message is about time, we can detect some tacit recognition here that the social aspect is not reducible to the sensitive aspect.

Diversity of Aspects

In the comment above, Searle tries to show not only that there is more than can be explained fully by physics and chemistry, but the diversity of what there is. Those who understand Dooyeweerd's aspects can immediately see that each of Searle's features is linked to specific Dooyeweerdian aspects:

Inter Aspectual Dependencies

According to Dooyeweerd, good functioning in an aspect depends on functioning in those earlier than it. So, for example, good, full social functioning depends on (requires) the symbolic communication of the lingual aspect, the ability to form, the ability to make distinctions, the ability to feel, as well as on life functions and on physical activity.

Searle's text is shot through with traces of these dependency relationships, even though he might not call it so.

In a section labelled 'Fundamental Ontology' Searle recognises that social reality is somehow distinct from other aspects of reality: "how social reality fits into our overall ontology, i.e. how the existence of social facts relates to other things that exist." But he then summarizes what, as he sees it, is the basic beliefs that humankind holds today, namely that all matter is made of atoms and that all living things have evolved to what we find today. He adds into this his beliefs about consciousness and the ability to represent things in the mind, to complete the summary ontology, and then asks "how can we account for the existence of social facts within that ontology?"

He wants to account for social reality "within" the ontology of physics and biology and psychology. These are three of Dooyeweerd's aspects: the physical, the biotic and the sensitive (as psychology). From a Dooyeweerdian point of view, we can see that there are another three aspects between those and the social, namely the analytic, formative and lingual, and shades and hints of these three come through in Searle's text at various places. It seems as though, independently of Dooyeweerd, he finds that the social aspect somehow depends upon and requires at least all the aspects from the physical to the lingual. (He gives special place to the lingual, as we discuss below.)

Furthermore, other aspects depend on the social (or, perhaps, the lingual). From a Dooyeweerdian perspective, lingual phenomena (utterances, facts) will usually be for a purpose from one of the later aspects. Searle explicitly lists (p. 124), "linguistic, economic, political, religious" - which is exactly the order that Dooyeweerd gives the later aspects (with the addition of social, aesthetic and ethical). This ordering might have been accidental on Searle's part, but the one-to-one correspondence between his list and Dooyeweerd's later aspects is notable. It does seem that Searle might have some intuitive feel for Dooyeweerd's aspects, even if not a full one.

Reduction?

I believe that Searle cannot quite escape reductionism, though he wishes to. Occasionally breaking away from it, he seems always to be pulled back. In the above, he states that he wishes to find social reality "within that ontology [of physics, biology, psychology]". In the end, the main reduction that he seems to practice is to the lingual aspect. He gives it special place on p. 124, and in chapter 4, 'The general theory of institutional facts', he starts by admitting an emphasis on "the special role of language in institutional reality." He grounds much of his theory on the formula, "X counts as Y in C", which is essentially lingual in nature. We find his tendency to reduce social reality to lingual comes through in the wording of his text more than in its content.

He talks a lot about marriage, which Dooyeweerd would tie to the ethical aspect, as 'an institutional fact'. The utterances at the wedding ceremony 'create' a new institutional fact, a marriage. Similarly, "new property rights are created by speech acts" [my emphasis]. Now, Dooyeweerd would see things slightly differently:

"'War'", Searle says later on, "oscillates between naming a type of large-scale social fact and a type of institutional fact." In saying this, and the sentences that follow it, he recognises that war has both a social and a juridical aspect to it, and it seems that he is not quite sure how to account for both of them. In fact, this characterises several things he has written, and he himself seems to "oscillate between" trying to reduce things and recognising their irreducibility.

Characterising Social-Institutional Facts

One place he seems to support irreducibility is in chapter 5, part 2 of his general theory of institutional facts. He provides a seven-level taxonomy, starting with all facts and narrowing them down by various distinctions, until he arrives at institutional facts. Many of his levels seem to speak of a single Dooyeweerdian aspect, while others relate to other things in the Dooyeweerdian framework:

Level Searle's distinction earle's example Dooyeweerdian distinction Other comment
Level 1 Non-mental v. mental facts "Mount Everest has snow", v. "I am in pain" Sensitive aspect v. the pre-sensitive aspects (physical, biotic, etc.). -
Level 2 Intentional v. non-intentional "I want a drink of water" v. "I am in pain" Analytical aspect v. pre-analytical, especially sensitive aspect state. His brief text on this, and his example, do not make the meaning clear, but it seems as if one speaks of some decision or distinction I make.
Level 3 Singular v. collective "I want a drink of water" v. "The hyenas are hunting a lion" - The distinction seems unclear to me, especially as the examples differ along several dimensions. I suppose the intended one is one v. many, but that is not very helpful because what if I say "I think" v. "A million of my brain cells are active"? This is one good reason why Dooyeweerd's centring of the social aspect on 'social interaction' rather than mere 'grouping' is important. Grouping is really of the quantitative aspect rather than of the social.
Level 4 Assignment of function v. all others. "This is a screwdriver" v. "I want a drink of water" Formative aspect, especially in its tool-making form, v. pre-formative. -
Level 5 Agentive v. non-agentive, also between manifest v. latent functions "Hammer drives in nails" v. "Heart pumps blood" Several differentiations here: between natural and artificial entities, between whole entity v. part (heart), between main aspect and other aspects in which an entity functions. I suspect that Searle himself might soon rethink this level as there seems to be several things here. The distinction between manifest and latent functions relates to the Dooyeweerdian recognition that though an artificial entity might have been created for one aspectual purpose, in fact most things are multi-aspectual in nature so it is no surprise to find other latent functions. Also, given a manifest function in one aspect, latent functions can always be found in later aspects because those aspects depend on the manifest aspect.
Level 6 Causal (casual?) function v. function based on collective acceptance "This is a screwdriver" v. "This is money" Social v. pre-social aspects Notice that his example of money is an economically-qualified phenomenon, and the economic aspect, being after the social, requires and depends on the social.
Level 7 Linguistic v. non-linguistic "This is a promise" v. "This is money" Entities of lingual functioning v. entities of other aspectual functioning even though they involve the lingual. Searle then classifies lingual entities (utterances) by their purpose which in most cases is dictated by another aspect: "linguistic, economic, political, religious". This speaks, as we mentioned above, of post-lingual qualification. He also uses a couple of other classification dimensions.


This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2010 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

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Created: 10 July 2000. Last updated: 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 17 September 2002 moved to ext/. 17 June 2010 .nav, .end, rid unet.